The real history behind The Spanish Princess
How historically accurate is The Spanish Princess? The drama tells the story of Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish royal who married both the teenage Tudor heir Prince Arthur and his younger brother Henry. Read more about the real history behind the young princess’s arrival in England, her relationship with the princes, and her journey to becoming the first wife of Henry VIII…
The Spanish Princess dramatises the story of the Spanish Catholic royal Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), who married into the Tudor dynasty at the beginning of the 16th century, setting in motion a chain of events that would redefine the history of the western world. But what's the real history of the events behind the drama?
Did Catherine and Prince Arthur really consummate their marriage? How did Catherine come to marry Henry VIII? What happened to Catherine's children? And was their marriage a happy one? Read on for the real history behind The Spanish Princess parts 1 and 2 (warning, there may be spoilers ahead).
About The Spanish Princess
The drama, available to watch on Starz, is based on two works by bestselling historical writer Philippa Gregory – The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse – and sets out to challenge the popular perception of her as “an unwanted and burdensome wife”, say showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham.
It follows two previous adaptations of Gregory’s work: The White Queen set during the Wars of the Roses following Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to Edward IV; and The White Princess, about the young Tudor king Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, a union that attempted to reunite the York and Lancaster houses after years of bitter dynastic conflict.
Parts 1 and 2 of The Spanish Princess are available to watch now with a subscription to Starz.
The wedding and marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur
Catherine of Aragon was born in the Archbishop’s Palace of Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, on 15 or 16 December 1485, just four months after a Welshman by the name of Henry Tudor seized the English crown. The betrothal of Catherine, the daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, and Arthur, the Prince of Wales and son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, signalled a pivotal alliance between the kingdoms. The 1489 Anglo-Spanish treaty of Medina del Campo had first set out the plans for Arthur to marry the youngest child of the powerful Catholic monarchs, and the union between the children signalled Henry VII’s ambitions for the Tudor dynasty.
England’s king had elaborate plans to welcome the young princess to England, filled with pomp, ceremony and theatrical entertainment. However, her arrival was delayed by poor weather, the dangerous crossing taking longer than expected. She landed at Plymouth in October 1501, her journey to London becoming a rapid progress. Her retinue included Iberian Moor Catalina (played in the drama by Stephanie Levi-John), who served Catherine for 26 years as the lady of the bedchamber. Catalina served her mistress for 26 years as the lady of the bedchamber and was married to a “Hace ballestas”, a crossbowman also of Moorish origin (in the show, Oviedo).
On 14 November 1501, the teenagers were married in a sumptuous ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral in London; Catherine and Arthur were both 15 years old (Arthur's younger brother Henry was 10 years old). As well as sealing the alliance, the wedding was an exercise in Tudor propaganda, writes historian Sean Cunningham.
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“The interior of St Paul’s had been redesigned. A raised walkway drew the attention of all people crammed into the space as the royal couple, dressed in white satin, took centre stage in a full-blown royal performance.”
Following the wedding the young couple moved to Ludlow Castle, Shropshire, where Arthur’s role as head of the Council of Wales and the Marches was considered to be good preparation for his future reign.
Did Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon consummate their marriage?
The intimate issue of Arthur and Catherine’s marriage consummation has been hotly debated for centuries, due to its later significance to Catherine’s marriage to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII. In 1527, Henry VIII tried to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that it had been “against God’s will” to marry his brother’s widow. However, if the previous marriage had been unconsummated it was not a legal union, and as Henry battled for an annulment Catherine adamantly claimed that she had still been a virgin at Arthur’s death. The truth of her assertion is still under scrutiny.
“The bawdy evidence of how Arthur greeted his friends on the morning after his wedding sounds like the well-rehearsed tale of a teenager trying to impress,” says Cunningham.
“The prince emerged from his chamber and called servant Anthony Willoughby over with the words: ‘Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.’ Then to all of the others present: ‘Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.’”
Other lords such as Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, recalled having seen Catherine awaiting Arthur under the bedclothes during the previous evening’s bedding ceremony, later noting Arthur’s “good and sanguine” complexion the next day. Willoughby, too, believed Arthur and Catherine had lain together as man and wife at Ludlow, until Arthur became fatally ill at Easter 1502. Sir William Thomas, a groom of the prince’s privy chamber, revealed how he had many times escorted Arthur to Catherine’s room and collected him again in the morning.
Yet when defending her virginity at the time of her marriage to Henry, Catherine and many of her supporters insisted that the two young royals had only shared a bed for seven nights, while others stated that the small and physically weak Arthur had been too sickly to consummate the union.
"Catherine had 'remained as intact and uncorrupted as the day she left her mother’s womb,'" writes Giles Tremlett of Catherine's argument. "The sexual impediments to their marriage that could only be overcome by a papal dispensation had never existed. Henry’s argument, Catherine was saying, was irrelevant. They had been properly married – and still were."
Cunningham concludes: “While other evidence suggests the frequency of their contact, only Catherine and Arthur would have known what went on behind the bedroom door.”
- Read more on the question of whether Catherine of Aragon was a virgin when she married Henry VIII
How did Prince Arthur die?
The cause of Arthur’s premature death on 2 April 1502, at the age of 15, is unknown, though it is most commonly attributed to a regional outbreak of sweating sickness. Others have suggested tuberculosis.
Sweating sickness symptoms included cold shivers, headaches, pain in the arms, legs, shoulders and neck, and fatigue or exhaustion. Far from being a disease that raged through the lower classes, many well-known figures in the Tudor court contracted the illness, including Anne Boleyn and her brother and father, George and Thomas. Catherine also fell ill, supporting the theory of sweating sickness, though she recovered.
Arthur’s death came suddenly and left Catherine a young widow after less than five months of marriage. Henry became the new heir to the throne at the age of 10.
Following the death of her elder son, Elizabeth of York was expected to provide another ‘spare’ male Tudor heir. Elizabeth fell pregnant but, following the premature birth of a baby girl at the Tower of London, the 37-year-old queen died in February 1503.
“Henry was aged 11: old enough to be fully aware of events, young enough to truly feel the loss of a mother,” writes Philippa Brewell of Henry’s relationship with his mother.
“The impact of losing his mother, with whom he had built such a strong bond during the many hours spent with her at Eltham Palace, is worth consideration when thinking about Henry’s subsequent relationships with women, wives in particular.”
Why did Henry VIII marry Catherine of Aragon?
Following Elizabeth’s death, in an effort to keep Catherine’s dowry the ageing King Henry VII began negotiations to marry Catherine himself, though his plans were blocked by Catherine’s mother, Isabella of Castile.
Upon the death of Henry VII in April 1509, 17-year-old Henry acceded to the throne. Prince Arthur's death was to become even more significant when Henry VIII made the decision to marry his brother’s widow, a choice for which the couple had to receive special dispensation from the pope. Yet it was not a choice born purely of obligation, writes historian Alison Weir.
“While the truth about her marriage to Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, would remain a mystery for centuries, there was never any doubt that Catherine of Aragon’s second marriage to his brother, Henry VIII, was ardently consummated on their wedding night in June 1509.
“To the 18-year-old, idealistic king, she was a great prize, this princess from mighty Spain, who brought him a rich dowry and international prestige to the fledgling Tudor dynasty,” says Weir.
“He adored her: she was, we are told, ‘the most beautiful creature in the world’. She was 23, plump and pretty, and had beautiful red-gold hair that hung below her hips. Henry spoke openly of the joy and felicity he had found with Catherine.”
What happened to Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII's children?
Their union was not to continue happily, if it had ever begun so. Catherine was pregnant at least six times between 1509 and 1518, and while she bore him a daughter, the future Mary I (b1516), their relationship was plagued by multiple miscarriages and stillbirths. Alison Weir writes how these tragedies left Katherine suffering a strong sense of failure because “she had desired to gladden the King and the people with a prince”.
When she gave birth to a boy, christened Henry, on New Year's Day 1511, bonfires were lit in London and the news was met with "very great pomp and rejoicing”. Yet the child died just seven weeks later. Henry, writes Weir “like a wise prince, took this dolorous chance wondrous wisely and, the more to comfort the Queen, he made no great mourning outwardly. But the Queen, like a natural woman, made much lamentation”. Prince Henry was buried in a lavish funeral in Westminster Abbey.
Was the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon a happy one?
Despite these personal tragedies, Catherine was an able and supportive consort to Henry and popular with her subjects, and it’s known that the couple rode and hunted together. The Spanish queen humoured her husband in all his chivalric games, writes John Edwards, and "at least pretended to be surprised by the charades in which he and his ‘noble’ friends sometimes engaged, including the occasion in which they invaded her chamber dressed as Robin Hood and his ‘Merry Men’".
Did Catherine of Aragon fight at Flodden?
Catherine of Aragon also ruled as regent when Henry was fighting in France, and her army defeated the forces of King James IV of Scotland, husband of Catherine’s sister-in-law Margaret Tudor, at the battle of Flodden in 1513. James had attempted to take advantage of the English king’s absence by crossing the border into England at the head of a powerful army.
Catherine’s involvement in the victory has largely been written out of history, says Edwards, often restricted to a tongue-in-cheek remark she made to Henry’s minister Thomas Wolsey that she was confining herself to “making standards, banners and badges”. But in fact, while her husband was engaged in largely ineffective manoeuvres in north-eastern France, Catherine gave executive orders.
Catherine clearly revelled in the English win – so much so that she proposed sending King James’s embalmed and waxed corpse to Henry in France as grisly evidence of her triumph. Yet instead she told her husband that: “This battle hath been to your grace and all your realm the greatest honour that could be, and more than ye should win all the crown of France.”
Edwards writes that the victory at Flodden can be regarded as a high point in Catherine’s life. "Here was a queen who, almost from the day she arrived in England, had been a favourite of the English people. Here was a woman whose keen intellect had impressed some of the sharpest minds in 16th-century Europe. And now to these accomplishments could be added a display of grit, initiative and no little skill in the midst of a national emergency."
Though Catherine did play a significant role in many diplomatic alliances of the Tudor age, she did not make the journey to France with Henry's younger sister, Princess Mary Tudor, for her marriage to King Louis XII, as depicted in the drama. However, as alluded to in the show, in Mary's retinue was Mary Boleyn, daughter of courtier Thomas and sister to Anne – both Boleyn daughters would later catch the eye of the king.
Becoming Elizabeth</em> tells the story of the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn before she became Elizabeth I, as she navigated the tumultuous reigns of her step-siblings. But how historically accurate is the dram
The Field of the Cloth of Gold: Did Henry VIII and Francis I wrestle?
The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a magnificent gathering – 18 days of revelry near Calais in June 1520, in which Henry VIII of England met with Francis I of France. It was a direct result of the Treaty of London, organised by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a pact of non-aggression between the major powers of Europe, including England, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Among the terms was the commitment that Henry and Francis would meet to affirm their friendship.
The revels marked a major milestone in the alliance between the two rulers, though the atmosphere was tense right up until the actual meeting. "The gold coats worn by the English party were briefly mistaken for armour", reveals BBC History Revealed, "and all was paused until the French were reassured that Francis was in no danger. Then the kings doffed their caps and embraced each other as if old friends."
Henry really did challenge the French king to a wrestling match, though seemingly not due to an insult, as in the drama. “Wrestling was the preferred entertainment when the weather turned sour. Completely unexpectedly, and after a few drinks, Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match, but was easily defeated. He did, however, best the French king at archery.”
What happened during the Evil May Day riots?
In Part II, while Henry and Catherine attend the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Lina and Oviedo are caught in the midst of rising prejudice and tension towards foreigners in England, in the form of the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. This was a real event that rocked London in the 16th century. Sources disagree about what precisely sparked the riot, says Dr Joanne Paul, writing for HistoryExtra. "Witness and investigator Thomas More suggested that it was two lowly young apprentices who were looking to make trouble. The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall put the blame on the foreigners themselves; they had boasted of their favour with the king and “disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen”, from whom they had taken jobs."
In reality, Catherine and Henry were not returning from France at this time and did not get caught up in the riots; the royal family was 10 miles from the heart of London, at their palace in Richmond. But it is true that Catherine intervened to gain a pardon for 400 or so of the agitators. Though the head of one rioter, John Lincoln, was displayed as a reminder and a warning against further uprising.
Elsewhere in the series, as the actions against dissenters intensify, Lady Margaret 'Maggie' Pole discovers another side to her court ally, Thomas More. It is true that history has left us two versions of Thomas More, as Dr Joanne Paul writes, "the flawless Catholic saint, and the cruel ogre, hellbent on burning Protestants".
"These two ‘Mores’ were the product of the divide between Protestants and Catholics," explains Paul, "and emerged out of the decades that followed More’s death in 1535. As More’s extended family produced hagiographic biographies to convince the pope to make him a saint, Elizabethan chroniclers like Edward Hall and John Foxe painted More as a fool and fanatic. To borrow the words of 19th-century socialist Karl Kautsky: 'To most of the biographies of More, a certain fragrance of incense clings.' It can be difficult to see through the fog."
How did Catherine and Henry VIII's marriage end?
As their struggles to conceive a healthy male heir continued, Henry VIII turned to many mistresses, including Elizabeth 'Bessie' Blount (during Catherine's first pregnancy he was also embroiled with Anne Hastings, sister of the Duke of Buckingham and a newly married member of Catherine’s household. Henry’s close friend William Compton appears to have acted as a go-between, although Anne later went on to have an affair with Compton himself. Henry sent her away from court in retaliation). Henry's affairs produced a number of illegitimate offspring (though a son Henry Fitzroy, born to mistress Blount, was the only child to be acknowledged). Catherine was increasingly marginalised and eventually cast aside by 1527, in favour of her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn.
- Henry VIII’s mistresses: who else did the Tudor king sleep with?
- Did Henry VIII acknowledge any of his illegitimate children?
As Henry sought an annulment to his marriage, Catherine was subjected to a protracted process of humiliation and heartbreak while she fought to prove her fidelity to Henry and insist that she was the rightful queen. Edwards explains how Catherine "vociferously denied the accusations that she had had sexual relations with Prince Arthur during their short marriage – an assumption around which much of Henry’s case was built". When Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment that he so desired, Henry’s infatuation with Anne sparked a break with papal obedience, a key catalyst for the English Reformation.
Henry officially married Anne Boleyn in January 1533, although they had probably already married secretly at Dover in November 1532. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t annulled by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, until May 1533.
How did Catherine of Aragon die?
Henry and Catherine were married for nearly 24 years, and she is today often known only in the children’s rhyme about Henry’s wives as ‘divorced’. Yet Catherine of Aragon also ‘survived’ for three years after the annulment of her marriage. However, she was banished from the king’s court and cruelly denied contact with her young daughter, Mary, even during her final illness (Henry did grant a visit from Catherine’s friend Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to the Tudor court).
She died at the age of 50, of suspected heart cancer, on 7 January 1536 at Kimbolton Castle – just four months before Henry’s second wife met her horrifying and bloody end.
Catherine, in a grave marked 'Dowager Princess of Wales', was buried at Peterborough Abbey, now Peterborough Cathedral.
The Spanish Princess Parts 1 & 2 are available to watch on STARZ now, with a new episode released each Sunday from 11 October. Find out more here.
Elinor Evans is the deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra.